Sunday, 31 January 2016

Officially no longer frightening

So we took The Offspring to the National Space Centre in Leicester, only to find it had been taken over by some sort of Doctor Who convention:
Not at all worried by the sudden appearance of our screaming, heavily-armed, metal-clad mutant overlords...
This, however, was slightly more unsettling in a Strangelovian sort of way...
Survivor of the Blue Streak medium-range ballistic missile project.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Skippy the terrorist kangaroo

I see from the Indy that the Anglo-Australian terrorist threat level has been lowered to "tickled pink:"
A British 15-year-old and an Australian terror suspect planned to fill a kangaroo with explosives, paint an Isis flag on its flank and then set it loose on police officers, court documents have alleged.

The unnamed Briton and 19-year-old Sevdet Besim are alleged to have discussed the bizarre tactic on the Telegram messenger service, as part of broader plans to commit a major terror attack in Melbourne during commemorative services for Anzac Day. 
Shock at the horrible deeds of the tiny minority of actual murderously competent Jihadis shouldn't mislead us into forgetting that most of the "terrorist plots" that are supposed to make us panic and submit to Stasi-like levels of intrusive surveillance are as hilariously inept as The Bouncing Bomb Boys' kangaroo caper.

As terrorists, these kids aren't going to terrify anybody, although to give them their due, that was one hell of a teenage strop - most teens content themselves with slamming the bedroom door and muttering "I hate you", but plotting to launch an explosive-laden kangaroo at the coppers would be a far more forceful and creative way of demonstrating how unfair your adolescent hormones are currently finding the world. Sadly, I doubt whether the authorities will see the funny side and I suspect these kids won't get away with just being grounded for a couple of weeks and having access to the games console withdrawn.

Meanwhile, on their home front, SCIS ("So-Called Islamic State"*) are being threatened with having their supply lines cut by their most credible opponents:
The powerful Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia and its local allies have drawn up plans for a major attack to seize the final stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border held by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters, a YPG source familiar with the plan said on Thursday.

Such an offensive could deprive ISIL fighters of a logistical route that has been used by the group to bring in supplies and foreign recruits...

...The source confirmed a report on Kurdish news website Xeber24 that cited a senior YPG leader saying the plan includes crossing the Euphrates to attack the ISIL-held towns of Jarabulus and Manbij in addition to Azaz, which is held by other insurgent groups.
Yet another reason not not to get into an existential panic. Of course, the murderous authoritarian bigots in Ankara might keep the crumbling bogeyman du jour alive by bombing the Kurds, although with the well-armed and hostile air force of the murderous authoritarian bigots in Moscow now patrolling the Syrian skies, SCIS may not even be able to count on the Turks to do their dirty work for them any more. I've got severe doubts about whether military intervention in Syria can do anything to resolve the complex mess and I've no time at all for Putin, but, as far as I can see, the nearest thing to a military intervention resulting a good outcome would be the Kurds removing SCIS from the Turkish border, with the Turks unable to bomb them, due to the presence of Russian planes on the other side of the border.

Such a huge and visible defeat for the people loudly threatening to kill us all in our beds and for the securocrats who use their threats as an excuse for creeping authoritarianism and totalitarian-style mass surveillance would be good news all round.

Unfortunately, I don't think that would end the war and the misery of the refugees - "degrading" the group with the best publicity machine would still leave the various interested parties with plenty of other proxy armies and militias to throw into a regional power struggle which shows no sign of grinding to a halt any time soon, SCIS, or no SCIS.

* This seems to be the BBC's favoured religious-sensibility-respecting euphemism of the moment. Which is kind of OK, since most Muslims clearly don't subscribe to the Daesh interpretation of Islam, but it's also an annoying example of how privileged deeply-held religious convictions are, compared with any other kind of deeply-held convictions. For example, Aneurin Bevan was proud to call himself a socialist and was, on the whole, as a driving force behind the establishment of the National Health Service, a pretty benign one. Yet I don't believe that the BBC were ever so respectful of the convictions he held dear as to refer to the Nazis as "the so-called National Socialist German Worker's Party", in order to distance moderate socialists like Bevan from a bunch of similarly-named extremists.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

One nation, under Satan

The Welsh Christian Party says having a red dragon - an animal it believes symbolises the devil - on the national flag is at odds with Wales' position as a Christian nation.

It is calling for the flag which has officially been in place since 1959, to be replaced with the black and gold cross of St David.

The party's leader, the Rev George Hargreaves, said, "We will not allow this evil symbol of the devil to reign over Wales for another moment.

Wales is the only country in history to have a red dragon on its national flag.

"This is the very symbol of the devil described in The Book of Revelation 12:3.

"This is nothing less than the sign of Satan, the devil, Lucifer that ancient serpent who deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

"No other nation has had this red dragon as its ruling symbol.

"Wales has been under demonic oppression and under many curses because of this unwise choice."
Wales Online, back in 2007

"And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his his heads."
Number of heads may vary...


I hadn't fully read the Reverend Hargreaves' biog when I posted this, which was a shame, because it makes the story much better. Apparently, before becoming ordained as a Pentecostal Minister, becoming head of the Welsh wing of  the pro-creationist, anti-gay Christian party and appearing on Channel 4's reality TV show, Make Me A Christian, "George also wrote and co-produced Sinitta's 1986 gay disco anthem So Macho (sample lyric: "I'm after a hunk of a guy, an experienced man of the world ... He's got to be so macho/He's got to be big and strong, enough to turn me on")..."

With a back story like that it was only a matter of time before the Reverend George attracted Ukip's interest - he was nearly selected as a Ukip election candidate in Coventry South last year, but was eventually ditched, presumably for being too bizarre even for the Kippers (which is saying something).

Robots can do big jobs

There are lots of think pieces around these days posing the question  "Will a robot take your job?", or something similar. According to Betteridge's law of headlines, the answer is " no."

But change the question slightly, to "Can a robot do your job?" and I reckon the answer could be "yes", at least if your job is big and important enough to require your presence at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Because, heaven help me, I've just spent about three irreplaceable minutes of my time on this good earth reading the " best" quotes from the thought leaders present at Davos 2016 and am now totally convinced that every line could have been generated, without human intervention, by something like this, or this, or this.

The human race is probably decades away from creating a robo-tailor or a robo-plumber, but we could probably replace Christine Lagarde with a cybernetic substitute tomorrow and not notice any difference. Although she may be part way there already - judging by the black Sci-fi villain outfit she seems to be wearing in the first quote, she's already putting the Davros into Davos, or morphing from an organic entity into the Borg Queen - which would sort of make sense of her quote  - "Resistance is futile, sisters, you will be assimilated into the Internet of Women!"

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Gods among us

"By every meaningful measure, today's elites are gods" wrote Jeff Sparrow, in the week when the modern Olympian deities gathered on their mountain to discuss what to do with the teeming mortals below.

If Sparrow's right, it wouldn't be the first time a society has moved from trying to restrain the conceit of the powerful to openly worshipping them. I've just been reading Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. The Republic, although clearly not a democracy in any sense that we would understand it, (or that the Athenians would have understood it), celebrated individual ambition, but also recognised it as a dangerous force that needed to be limited:
To preserve it from the ambitions of would-be future tyrants, the founders of the Republic settled upon a remarkable formula. Carefully, they divided the powers of the exiled Tarquin between two magistrates, neither permitted to serve for longer than a year. These were the consuls, and their presence at the head of their fellow citizens, the one guarding against the ambitions of the other, was a stirring expression of the Republic's guiding principle - that never again should one man be permitted to rule supreme in Rome.
Compare and contrast the founding principles of the Republic with the honours Julius Caesar allowed himself in its dying days:
In the East they already worshipped Caesar as a god. In the East there were traditions far older by far than the Republic, of the flesh becoming divine, and of the rule of a king of kings.

And there, for anxious Romans, lay the rub. Late in 45 BC the Senate announced that Caesar was henceforward to be honoured as divus Iulius: Julius the God.
For many Romans and later commentators the transition from liberty, of a sort, to an imperial Pax Romana under divine autocrats was no bad thing. According to Gibbon "if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most* happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domition to the accession of Commodus."

Substitute "prosperity" for "peace" and that's more or less the justification for worshipping the god-like plutocrats of the 21st Century: we live at the end of history, in the best of all possible worlds, thanks to a handful of special ones with god-like creative powers: "And Zuckerberg said, Let there be Facebook: and there was Facebook. And Zuckerberg saw the Facebook, that it was good and Zuckerberg divided the advertising revenue from the allegedly amusing cat photos."

In a case of history repeating itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, we even have a precedent for the Eastern prophecies of an incarnate messiah in Ayn Rand's turgid fictionalised manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, in which the figure of John Galt foreshadows the entrepreneurial tycoon as a god made flesh, fit only to be discussed only in terms of awed reverence.

When did the prophecy come to pass? Well, at different times in different places, but here in Britain, I'd say the deification of the plutocracy happened around the time that Richard Branson attained the status of rock-star cool. Rather like the Christian applicant for the post of Messiah, Branson was an unlikely candidate for godhead; in Jesus's case this was because he was "little weak and helpless", as the Christmas carol puts it - in Branston's case it's because he looks less like a god than a toothy gnome wearing a jumper your nan knitted:
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
I'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me!
Strange, but, as Robert Graves wrote in his sequel to I Claudius (Claudius the God), "godhead is, after all, a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion: if a man is generally worshipped as a god then he is a god. And if a god ceases to be worshipped he is nothing." The deification of the elite owes less to the elite's own virtues than to our weakness for idol worship, which takes us back to the Marx quotation in Sparrow's article:
I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.
And just in case you were doubting that those particular words have already been made flesh:
 If you haven’t yet heard, Donald Trump is good at making money......He is great. He is rich. People like him. Politicians are terrible. ISIS must be defeated. Illegal immigrants must be deported. Make America Great Again. It goes on.

*Thanks to the over-enthusiastic predictive text on the tablet I was using, this originally came out as "moist happy and prosperous" which, with the addition of a comma, would have been more or less OK, given that we are, on average, mostly water.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Countering extremist material on campus

Book burning, sad to say, was for centuries a habit of those in authority throughout the western world — not least here in Oxford.

Way back in 1225 Pope Honorius III ordered all surviving copies of books by the ninth century Irish philosopher Eriugena — whom Oxford University, implausibly enough, had long claimed to be its founder — be sent to Rome for burning.

And more famously, Thomas Hobbes’ books, including Leviathan, were burned in the quadrangle of the Bodleian in 1683.

In 1660, too, the University authorities ordered John Milton’s books to be burned publicly in the Bodleian quad.

Historian Anthony Wood was present at the 1660 fires. He described how books “were publicly burned by the hand of of our Marshall in the court of our schools,” adding: “scholars of all degrees and qualities in the meantime surrounding the fire gave several hums whilst they were burning.”

The university authorities in ordering the 1660 fires were following a command from the king. The Proclamation of King Charles II condemned Milton’s Eikonoklastes and his Pro Populo anglicano Defensio to the fires on the grounds that both works defended the execution of Charles I.
Chris Koenig, writing in The Oxford Times in 2010.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Country-style pork

The best-known response to the Schleswig-Holstein Question came from Lord Palmerston. The most creative response came from a bunch of Danish farmers and involved bacon, obviously:
The Husum Red Pied (German: Rotbuntes Husumer) is a rare breed of domestic pig with the nickname Danish Protest Pig (German: Husumer Protestschwein and Danish: Husum protestsvin or danske protestsvin). It originates in North Frisia in Southern Schleswig in the beginning of the 20th century, when Danes living in the area under Prussian rule were prohibited from raising the Danish flag and displayed the Protest Pig instead. Due to its red color, its broad white vertical belt and a trace of a white horizontal belt resembling the colors of the Flag of Denmark, it was made a symbol of their cultural identity.
On the whole, a relatively benign form of porcine direct action when compared with, say, Reconquista-era Spain's introduction of jamon as both national delicacy and food-based medium for oppressing Muslims and Jews. Relatively benign, that is, unless you were a pig, in which case the outcome of the Schleswig-Holstein Question boiled down to the fairly academic consideration of whether you ended up being served as dinner in Germany or Denmark.

First spotted in The Dabbler.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Dark Jerusalem

In a sod of a dark January week, when our most talented people keep bloody well dying, everyone needs a bit of cheering up. So here's a small discovery that me happy inside for a bit. The Women's Institute now has a Goth branch.

Yes, jam, cakes, black clothes, white makeup, eyeliner, the lot. Marvellous. And somebody's been having fun with the branding - they've got a couple of rather nifty logos: black corset and crossed wooden spoons, in the shape of a skull and crossbones, and a bat fluttering over a cupcake.

It's like something from the universe of another great talent who died too young, Terry Pratchett. A Goth WI is exactly the sort of institution you'd expect to bump into somewhere on the Discworld.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Local news story of the week...

...comes from the Milton Keynes Citizen, where they weren't at all desperate to find a tenuous Milton Keynes angle to the Bowie tributes:
Rock legend David Bowie called himself ‘Milton Keynes’*
In other news:
Onesie wearing alcoholic jailed after setting fire to landlady’s porch
The excitement never stops round here, I tell you.


Just turn on with me and you're not alone

According to Maria Konnikova, these sort of circumstances make people vulnerable to con artists:
...what happens when you’re down, when you’re vulnerable, there’s change going on, and your world no longer makes sense the way that it used to, so you’re particularly vulnerable to people who make sense of it for you. You want that meaning. You want that sense of connection and con artists are very happy to supply it for you
And these are the characteristics of the hucksters who take advantage of people who feel that way:
The dark triad is three things, obviously: Psychopathy, the inability to feel emotion in the way that normal people do. It’s kind of a lack of empathy. Your brain is actually different, you process emotional stimuli differently. To you, they don’t mean that much. It’s very difficult for a non-psychopath to understand, but basically everything that would really make you emotionally engaged would leave you cold as a psychopath, so that’s one part of it.

The second part is narcissism, this overblown ego where you not only think you’re just the best thing that’s ever happened to anyone, but you also think you deserve a lot. You deserve basically everyone to bow down to you. And you have it coming to you, all these good things...

...Finally, it's Machiavellianism, or the ability to manipulate people into doing what you want. Kind of like Machiavelli’s Ideal Prince, you have your own ends and you use whatever means you want to get there. And you’re very good at tricking those people and getting them to do what you want.

The reason those traits are so important to con artists is that you are taking advantage of people, and in order to do it well, you can’t think that you’re taking advantage of people, because the moment you do, you start feeling bad for them. What this triad allows you to do is not have to deal with that, you don’t feel bad for people, because you don’t feel empathy. And you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, because you deserve it.
It's not very much of a stretch to see a political dimension in these personal tales of hustlers and their marks. Massive economic dislocation leading to change, insecurity and vulnerability for millions - no wonder the global kakistocracts all believe that tomorrow belongs to them.

Which, in a roundabout way, is another reason to mourn the passing of Bowie - when you're feeling vulnerable, confused and overwhelmed by life's ch-ch-changes, it surely makes more sense to retreat to your bedroom and play Rock n' Roll Suicide very loudly, until you realise that you're probably not alone, than to fall victim to some loud-mouthed  charlatan who promises that all your complex problems can be solved by simply being a bit more horrible and vindictive towards people with even less power than you.

Teenagers get a lot of stick, but it would be more far dignified and humane for vulnerable people of any age to behave like misunderstood teenagers than to join Ukip's/Putin's/Trump's/Erdoğan's braying mobs. Like the man said:
Don't let the sun blast your shadow
Don't let the milk-float ride your mind
They're so natural - religiously unkind.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Farewell, Toblerone

I don't usually get the January blues, but here's a melancholy sight:
Yes, the last of the giant Christmas Toblerone is almost gone. Even worse, if you pop into the local Co-Op, in search of another fix, you'll find they've already cleared the shelves of chocolatey prisms to make way for Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies.

When I were a lad, the Terry's Chocolate Orange was the special confectionery treat of the season and the Toblerone was just a another all-year-round chocolate bar. But at some point, while I wasn't paying attention, Toblerones disappeared from retailers' shelves, except during the run-up to Christmas, when they reappeared in super-sized form.

There's presumably some cunning marketing plan behind the limited availability. If so, it's working - I never used to be that fussed about Toblerones, but I've never craved a specific brand of chocolate bar quite as much as I do right now. And there was me, feeling all smug about not being just another brainwashed consumer. 

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Further towards a Grand Unified Theory of bullshit

Sadly, according to Gordon Pennycook, "we ... live in the age of misinformation." Happily, he thinks we can learn to reliably spot misinformation for what it is:
 ...I have done empirical research on bullshit, and the results are clear. My collaborators and I recently published a paper investigating what we referred to as pseudo-profound bullshit. To understand how we investigated bullshit empirically, consider the following examples:
The invisible is beyond new timelessness.
As you self-actualise, you will enter into infinite empathy that transcends understanding.
These statements are, definitively, bullshit. I can say this directly because they were generated using two websites: and the New Age Bullshit Generator. Both select buzzwords at random and use them to form sentences. They have no intended meaning and use vagueness to mask their vacuity. They are bullshit. 

Across four studies and with more than 800 participants, we found that people consistently rate blatant bullshit such as this as at least somewhat profound. More importantly, this tendency – which we referred to as bullshit receptivity – was more common among people who performed worse on a variety of cognitive ability- and thinking-style tests, and who held religious and paranormal beliefs. Put differently, more logical, analytical and skeptical people were less likely to rate bullshit as profound, just as you might expect.

Importantly, we also included motivational quotations that were written in plain language and that had clear meaning (eg, ‘A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence’). Surprisingly, more than 20 per cent of our participants rated the sentences that consist of random buzzwords as more profound than the sentences with clear meaning. These people had particularly faulty bullshit detectors. They also scored lower on our thinking-style test, indicating that they tend to be particularly intuitive and non-reflective decision-makers.
In other words, the kind of imprecise, overblown language George Orwell warned us about seventy years ago is what should trigger your bullshit alarm:
Only I don't think it's quite that simple. Meaningless polysyllabic jargon and obscure buzzwords account for a fair proportion of the world's bullshit pile, to be sure, but they're not always  reliable indicators. They don't, for example, account for the world's most efficient ruminant feces extrusion nozzle (pictured below):

Although there are similarities between the Chopra and Trump brands of misinformation ("For the bullshitter, it doesn’t really matter if he is right or wrong. What matters is that you’re paying attention"), there are also big differences. Where Chopra soothes the punters with his warm bubble bath of impenetrable but impressively positive-sounding platitudes, Trump grabs their attention by doing more or less the opposite:
Trump's relentless spray of short, punchy, monosyllables peppered with emotive trigger words has a completely different look and feel to Chopra's wordy pseudo-profundity, but underneath the branding, it's the same old pile of disingenuous nonsense.

So it looks to me as though you can't reliably detect all forms of bullshit using a one-dimensional Orwellian language filter (long, complex, obscure, abstract = misinformation, short, clear, concrete, easily understandable = real information). 

Imprecise and misleading language, it turns out, can come in simple, common-sense disguise, deliberately avoiding the big words and and complex abstractions that Orwell and now Pennycook warned us about. There's no one-size-fits-all template for bullshit, because effective bullshit is all about marketing and branding. And what do marketers do? They segment. They tailor the message to the audience. They will always try to get round the rational brain and anchor their product to vague but emotionally satisfying hot words, but the word cloud and syllable count will look very different depending on whether you're fishing for the dollars of New Age Californians or trying to get blue-collar tabloid readers to vote for the 1% and against their own interests.

So there are probably at least three varieties of bullshit. First, pseudo-profound, as identified by Pennycook. Pseudo-intelligent is probably a better name for the sort Orwell identified - where you don't quite understand what the journalist, politician or manager is going on about, but assume that they* must know what they're talking about, using all those fancy words. And finally, there's pseudo-straightforward, where a barrage of short, simple words, many of them emotionally loaded, are repetitively firehosed at target audiences without the time or inclination to think about details like whether or not any of those words make sense.

The year so far, in bizarre headlines

Suffolk man ‘had sex with 450 tractors’
Man cuts wife's head off, encases it in concrete and uses that to drown himself
Monitor lizards trained not to eat toxic cane toads
We're only one week in and we've already had sex, violence and toxicology awareness for reptiles. Internet, with these headlines you are spoiling us.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Situation normal

Paranoia aside, Farage's brush with death was probably a mere accident, rather than The Night of The Long Spanners but, even as an accident, it's so Ukip.  "Wheels coming off due to loose nuts" perfectly describes the state of the party on most days.

Saturday, 2 January 2016


Being a fighter pilot -- for that matter, simply taking off in a single-engine jet fighter of the Century series, such as an F-102, or any of the military's other marvelous bricks with fins on them -- presented a man, on a perfectly sunny day, with more ways to get himself killed than his wife and children could imagine in their wildest fears. 
Wrote Tom Wolf in The Right Stuff. But you didn't have to be an all-American hero to dice with death up in the burning blue. Look what Wikipedia has to say about the RAF's first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor. When reading this paragraph, bear in mind that the total number of British service personnel who've died in the recent Afghan war is 456.
A total of 890 Meteors were lost in RAF service (145 of these crashes occurred in 1953 alone), resulting in the deaths of 450 pilots. Contributory factors in the number of crashes were the high fuel consumption and consequent short flight endurance (less than one hour), causing pilots to run out of fuel, and difficult handling with one engine out due to the widely set engines.
Almost as many deaths from just flying one type of plane as from a decade and a half of brutal fighting in a country already notorious for being the graveyard of invading armies. No wonder they called it the Meatbox.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Mr Trump goes to Hogwarts

OK, so I'd sworn never to mention the planet's trendingist buffoon again in this blog, but thanks to a mixture of ironic process theory and J K Rowling, here we are again. Here's what Jo Rowling tweeted about You-Know-Who last year:

I think she's wrong. Not about how vile the man's influence is,* but about which character from the Harry Potter books he most closely resembles.

I had no detailed knowledge of the boy wizard's adventures until recently, mainly because I was in my mid thirties at the time when the first books were released, with readers less than half that age in mind and had plenty of grown-up books to read at the time. But The Offspring's current bedtime story routine involves me working my way through the series, so I'm belatedly getting up to speed on the stories.

Still, it's a bit arrogant of me to disagree with a best-selling author about her own characters - all I can say is stay with me on this one and see what you think. The Harry Potter books must be set texts somewhere, because here's what an on-line set of students' notes has to say about the wizarding charlatan, Gilderoy Lockhart, who appears in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Remind you of anybody?
Professor Lockhart is the second Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher they've had in as many years. In addition to embarking on his new teaching career, Professor Lockhart is also busy marketing himself. He's got a line of books (Break with a Banshee, Gadding with Ghouls, Holidays with Hags, etc.) that give full details about how awesome, heroic, and beautiful Professor Lockhart is. In fact, Harry, Ron, and Hermione first meet Lockhart at a book signing of his new autobiography, The Art of the Deal Magical Me, where he is surrounded "by large pictures of his own face, all winking and flashing dazzlingly white teeth at the crowd" . As you may guess from this introduction, Professor Lockhart's primary characteristic is that he is extremely, extremely vain.

Like many vain people, Professor Lockhart is also quite insecure. He can't stand to share the limelight with anyone else. He clearly feels threatened by Harry Potter's fame and takes care to run him down when he can: "Let me just say that handing out signed pictures at this stage of your career isn't sensible – looks a tad bigheaded, Harry, to be frank". Of course, if anyone is bigheaded, it's Professor Lockhart. He's just jealous of Harry. He even goes so far as to force Harry to help him sign autographs for detention...

Professor Lockhart's vanity and insecurity would be easier to stand if he was capable of doing anything at all. Of course, he isn't: in his first class with the second years, he releases a bunch of Cornish pixies to wreck the classroom and then can't figure out how to stop them. He drops his wand while trying to teach Harry a Disarming Charm during the first and last meeting of his Dueling Club. Most pathetic of all, when Harry breaks his arm during his Quidditch match against Slytherin, Professor Lockhart manages to remove all the bones in his arm rather than fix them.

So Professor Lockhart is quite pathetic. We only discover how sinister he can be at the end of the novel, when he tries to cast a Memory Charm on Harry and Ron. The two boys have found out that Professor Lockhart's books are all a pack of lies. He's been taking credit for things other people have done by using memory modification spells (his one talent). The only thing that saves Harry and Ron from the same thing is Ron's broken wand, which backfires on Professor Lockhart and gives him complete, incurable amnesia. Throughout the book, we've rolled our eyes at Professor Lockhart's stupid antics. In this final scene in the tunnel on the way to the Chamber of Secrets, though, we see how powerful self-centeredness can really be. Professor Lockhart is willing to leave Ginny to die and to modify Harry and Ron's memories just so that he can maintain his reputation. He may be a weak coward, but that's why he's surprisingly dangerous.

There's your "Master Wizard", right there behind the curtain, pretending to be some great and powerful wizard. Pull back the curtain and he's just another snake-oil salesman from a travelling show with a good line in fraudulent patter to fool a few wet-behing-the-ears farmers.

* IMO right down there with the manipulative, bullying bigotry spewing from people like Trump's man-crush Vlad Putin, or Marine Le Pen, or Erdoğan, or any of the other cynical chancers currently trying to appeal to the worst of the worst in the world's democracies